Inspired to Make a Mid-Life Switch to Nursing

A journey of personal growth for one single mom leads her down paths she never expected, to the happiness she always wanted.

by
Jul 19, 2010

Dennise Sellers was a mom on a mission: to achieve success and happiness as a nurse

Another Saturday night, and the restaurant where I waitressed was packed. I waved hello to a few of our regulars, tied on my apron, grabbed a pen and pad and headed to my first table of the night: a gray-haired woman and her four grown children. I hadn’t seen them in here before.

“Welcome. My name is Dennise, and I’ll be your server,” I said, launching into my new-customer spiel. The woman and I chatted about the weather and the Syracuse Orange, whose uniforms and banners hung from the walls. “You’ll love our chicken tenders,” I said to one of her sons. I took their order and brought it to the kitchen.

I’d started waitressing 20 years earlier. Back then it was the perfect job. I was a young newlywed and I liked the hustle and bustle—juggle 13 tables? no problem—and the flexible hours. When my husband and I had our daughter, Holly, I switched to the night shift so I could pick her up from school and spend time with her in the afternoon.

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Now I was 42, divorced and Holly was finishing high school. I was grateful to God for having a job, especially a job I liked. But lately I’d been feeling restless. Like I needed a change.

I guess you could say I caught the bug when three of my coworkers enrolled in nursing school a few months earlier. They’d come into the restaurant beaming, going on and on about their classes. Their excitement was contagious.

I’d once dreamed of going to college. I never had a career in mind, but I knew I wanted to help people, to have a lasting impact on their lives. The more I listened to my coworkers, the more I thought of becoming a nurse myself.

Sometimes, between customers, my mind would drift. Instead of khakis and an apron, I imagined myself in scrubs, with a stethoscope draped around my neck, tending to patients. I’d check vitals and administer life-saving med­ications to people instead of just serving them chicken wings and fries.

Then I’d catch myself. Who am I kidding? My coworkers were young, not much older than my daughter—they were at a time of life when you’re supposed to be finding your path. Not me. I was middle-aged. I should’ve found my path by now. And if I hadn’t, wasn’t it too late to start over?

Besides, I didn’t even know if any nursing school would accept me. I’d fallen in with a questionable crowd in high school and dropped out. I straightened up and got my GED, but I didn’t exactly have a stellar academic record.

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And what did I know about nursing? The only time I’d been in the hospital was when I’d had Holly. Suppose I spent the money and effort on nursing school only to discover that I fainted at the sight of blood?

I cleared off a few tables, then walked back to the kitchen. “Hi, just checking on those five orders I placed. How much longer?” I asked one of our cooks.

“Comin’ up, Dennise,” he said. “Wait right here.”

It felt good to stand still, if only for a minute. I was constantly on the go. I worked the night shift at the restaurant, plus 20 hours a week as sexton at my church. Was it humanly possible to fit in a full course load on top of all that?

I’d been asking God for guidance. Lord, I feel like there’s something more out there for me, maybe even a new career. Please point me in the right direction.

I’d even talked to Holly about it one day. We’re really close, and I knew I could count on her for an honest opinion. “Hol, what do you think about me changing careers?” I asked.

“Like, doing what, Mom?” she asked.

“Well, it’s just…” I struggled for the words. I couldn’t really explain it. “It’s just, I’ve been thinking a lot about helping people. I take care of them now, but I mean, in a bigger way. Maybe be a nurse or something. What do you think?”

Holly sat there, silent, her brown eyes fixed on me. Great, I thought. I knew this was a crazy idea. “Are you kidding, Mom? You’d make a great nurse!” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as you. You’re always there for me, and I know you’ll be there for any patient of yours too.”

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That gave me a temporary boost of confidence. Still, should I give up a job I’d been doing for my entire adult life—a job that I was good at, comfortable with—for the unknown? Who was I kidding? I was a high school dropout. What made me think I could handle the coursework now? All that biology and chemistry?

Right there, on Saturday night, standing in the restaurant kitchen, I prayed again. All right, Lord. I’m listen­ing. If you want me to be a nurse, you’re going to have to make it absolutely clear.

“Dennise, pick up!” a voice bellowed. I snapped back to reality. I thanked the cook, grabbed the plates and headed over to my table. The gray-haired woman and her family studied me with more than the usual interest while I set their meals in front of them.

Had I mixed up their orders? One of her sons nudged her. “Mom, tell her what you just told me,” he said, inclining his head in my direction. “Go on, tell her.”

“Well, I was just saying that you would make a wonderful nurse,” she said.

“A...a nurse?” I was taken aback.

“That’s right. I’ve been a nurse myself for thirty years, and I’ve been watching you. With your outgoing personality and the energetic way you work, you definitely have what it takes.”

“Thank you,” I said. On my way to my next table I added silently, Thank you, God. I couldn’t have gotten a clearer sign!

I enrolled in the nursing program at the community college. I signed up for a two-year self-study program so I was able to take a lot of the tests online, while keeping my day job as a sexton and working nights at the restaurant. My life became a blur—all I did was work and study.

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Clinicals—the one day a week when we worked in the hospital, directly with patients—were my favorite. Every eight weeks we rotated floors. Pediatrics. Surgery. Orthopedics. Maternity. There was so much to learn. And each semester it got harder.

Most nights I didn’t make it to bed until 2:00 a.m. Then I’d get up at 7:00 a.m. to study some more before heading to the church. Sometimes I napped in the afternoon just to keep from falling asleep at my computer.

All that hard work paid off—I passed test after test with flying colors! Holly liked to tease that there was no way she could keep up with me. Still, when it came time for my medications final—one of the last and toughest exams before graduation—I felt a little nervous. I was so close to getting my degree and I didn’t want to mess up now.

“You have half an hour,” my instructor said, pointing me in the direction of four mannequins, dummy patients. He handed me an index card with a preprinted scenario.

One of the “patients” had dangerously high blood pressure. Another was scheduled for a CT scan. A third moaned in pain, and the last was due for routine medications. The meds prescribed for each varied from oral to IV to injections.

My job was to quickly prioritize the patients’ care, much like Hawkeye does on those MASH reruns. Then I had to move from one to the other, calmly and efficiently. There was no room for error. If they were real patients, a mistake could prove fatal.

First, I verified identity by checking and double-checking the patient’s name and birth date. Then I did a triple check of each medication. I matched the meds to the med sheet when I removed them from the dispenser and checked them again at each patient’s bed. It was sort of like double-checking orders at the restaurant, being careful not to mix them up.

Finally, I delivered the medication in the manner prescribed. That felt a lot like juggling 13 tables on a Saturday night! I finished in less than 30 minutes.

“Well done,” said my instructor. “You passed.”

In March 2005, at age 44, I became a full-time registered nurse in the neurology department at University Hospital, a large teaching facility.

Today I care for five patients at a time and multitask my entire shift. Lifting patients, hauling equipment and spending long hours on my feet—I’m used to all that physical work from my years of waitressing.

Believe it or not, handling five patients is not that different from juggling 13 tables. The stakes are higher, for sure, but the skills are similar. Both jobs require focus, confidence, energy and a real orientation toward others.

I was proud to be a waitress, and I’m proud I followed my calling to be a nurse. Maybe even prouder because Holly’s now taking the prerequisite courses to enroll in nursing school.

Of course it took a few nudges from the Lord. He had my coworkers inspire me, my daughter encourage me. Oh, and that nice gray-haired lady at the restaurant who declared out of the blue that I’d make a good nurse? I never did see her again. But God put her there right when I needed her most, to show me it’s never too late to change your life and go in a bold new direction.

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